Film Noir – Not a list – OK maybe a list

So the copyright note wasn’t my plan for today.

I posted a list of my top Film Noir movies the other day.This is what, to me, makes a Film Noir.

The first thing to remember is that no American filmmaker made Film Noir.  It is a label applied to a grouping of American films by french film critics in the late 1950s/early 1960s.  The American filmmakers just thought they were making films.  So deciding what is an isn’t Film Noir is a bit tricky.  There is no definitive answer – you can only say that a film is noir’ish.

So no Film Noir likely fits all these criteria.  In fact, they are probably most interesting in how they might break some of these tropes.

First, Film Noir was made in the 1940s and 1950s.  Any fil before might be called proto-noir and any film after neo-noir.  The neo-noirs (Chinatown, L.A. Confidential, Dark City – to name some I like) are interesting in that they know they are noir’ish and are trying for that feel.

Noir were typically B movies.  Remember at the time the Hollywood studio system reigned supreme.  Actors and directors were signed to studio contracts and made X movies a year for the studio.  Showings were typically double features.  The A movie would have the studios top talent, writers, actors and directors.  The B roll would showcase their up and coming talent.  It had smaller budgets and lacked big name stars.  Some of what Noir is known for may simply arise from the lower budgets.  For instance the stark lighting contrasts and heavy use of shadows may just be because they didn’t have expensive lighting rigs or because the shadows concealed the shoddy  sets and cheap costumes.

The movies were crime thrillers.  Told often from the point of view of a detective tracking a crime or from the POV of the criminals themselves.  Most modern crime thrillers still have a noir feel to them – in some aspects at least.

The subject matter was bleak, cynical and dark.  More than anything else this is what the French critics were reacting to.  They espoused a view of humanity that was not optimistic.  For instance a detective may be chasing a criminal not to serve justice and the public good, but to satisfy his own drives, passions and neuroses.

Remember also that these movies were coming out before there was such a thing as film ratings.  There was a censorship board though that decided what was and wasn’t appropriate for viewing.  So this bleakness was generally achieved without cursing, blood, much explicit violence, no explicit sex and the good guys generally still won in the end.  The fact that they met the censor’s requirements while still showing that darkness just adds to the irony of the films and somehow makes them even darker.  They also certainly pushed the boundaries of what the censor would accept and may have been refused had they been A movies.

I’d also say that Film Noir were primarily character movies.  If there is a triangle of Character, Plot and Idea then a movie lies somewhere inside.  An action or caper movie is primarily about the plot.  A biopic might be about character.  Hard Scifi – like 2001 for instance is primarily about an idea.  A great movie might have equally all three – Gone with the Wind is about the Civil War, is strongly focused on its characters and has a strong story in two acts.

So Film Noir generally have fairly typical crime thriller plots and some of them are certainly convoluted.  (The Big Sleep for instance has such a complex plot that the author of the book says he can’t follow the movie.)  But, I’d say that the primary focus is how the character will react in the situations.  Switch the character in a Film Noir and you won’t have the same movie.

The main character is a Film Noir is almost always a man (rarely the Femme Fatale is also the main character).  Usually a detective (not actual police) or a criminal.  They are often already broken by the world.  The film might seem to give them a second chance before they realize that it is just a different view on the same crummy world.  The main character often does not change in the film (other than situation) – this might be an argument for it not being character based.

There is a strong sense of destiny in the movies.  Regardless of what the character does they are helpless from making it play ut the way it does.  A Film Noir protagonist rarely seems to make a decision in a movie.  They are dictated by the force of their character into their actions  (see Sam Spade’s monologue at the end of the Maltese Falcon).

That force of character is generally a certain doggedness.  Specifically a need to find the answers or complete their job regardless of the personal consequences.  The characters often have a certain moral ambiguity to them as well.  They often seem amoral although that make simply be a blanket hiding a very moral character or they may actually be amoral.  Certainly they seem to walk through a world that dosesn’t care about their morality one way or the other.

Finally, they generally have a sexual neurosis.  A penchant for obsessive behavior towards members of the opposite sex.  They are uniquely incapable of resisting the allure of the Femme Fatale even if reason tells them otherwise.

Which brings us to another ingredient in the mix – the Femme Fatale herself.  The Femme Fatale is often not the villain of the piece (although often she is).  And they are certainly not feminist characters although they are often stronger than the protagonist.  They are generally beautiful and amoral.  And their purpose lies at odds with the goals of the main characters.  They will use their wiles and the main characters weakness to manipulate him into furthering their desires.

The remainder of the cast are colleagues and foils for the main character.  Often these are fairly one dimensional stereotypes, but just as often they are just slightly off kilter.

Enough about the characters. Another feature is the lighting.  Film Noir is always in black and white.  Certainly the genre is known as Film Noir as much for the lighting as the feeling.  I said before that some of the lighting choices might be due to budget, but I think that they are also deliberate.  The stark contrast between light and shadow.  The play of light through a cigarette smoke and the long shadow from a streetlamp are all very noir.

And finally, the dialogue.  The dialogue is often fast paced with double entendres and complex similes.  Often the dialogue is used at two cross-purposes so that it says one thing and means the opposite.

How about a case study.  Take the Maltese Falcon (classic Noir) and Casablanca (not Noir).  These movies share many facets.  They are both made in the right time frame, share much of the same cast and are crime thrillers, but Casablanca isn’t Noir.

They are both A list movies with A list actors (Bogart/Bergman/Raines/Henreid vs. Bogart/Astor), A list supporting cast (Greenstreet and Lorre in both) and A list directors (Curtiz vs. Huston).

Both have morally ambiguous characters.  Both are shot in black and white and make heavy use of shadow.  Both use dialogue quickly and wittily.

In both movies Bogart has a weakness for women.  But in Casablanca it is one specific women and in the Falcon it is many women.  But Bergman is not a Femme Fatale while Astor is.  Bergman’s character (Ilsa Lund) actually inspires Rick Blaine to become a better person.  And Bogie’s character (Rick) actually changes in Casablanca.  His character in the Maltese Falcon doesn’t – he simply solves the case and says he’ll wait around for the Femme Fatale (Astor) to get out of prison so she can mess around with him again.  🙂

[Note – many of the movies on my last list are A-list Film Noir like the Maltese Falcon.  So my examples break at least one of the criteria I set out.  D.O.A.  is a good example on the list of one that is also a B movie.  I like the more elaborate production styles of A movies…]


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